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A glitchy web portal is blocking pilgrims from traveling for the Hajj

Written by The Frontier Post

Web Desk

RIYADH: For two years, Sawsan Jabri has set aside $1,000 every few months so she can perform the Hajj, the Islamic holy city of Mecca for all able-bodied Muslims.Jabri wanted to go Decades, but money or family commitments got in the way. This year, everything was in place for her trip from Atlanta to Saudi Arabia — until three weeks ago.

In June, just over a month before the July 7 start date, the Hajj Ministry in Saudi Arabia The suddenly announced trips for Western pilgrims can only be booked through a government-authorized online portal called Motawif. Hotels, air tickets and special visas will all be organized and paid for through the system. Travelers who booked packages through the previous method (authorized travel agency) will need to seek a refund.

Jabri hurriedly filled out the form on Motawif. She tried paying $8,000 on the website nearly 50 times before the reservation went through.Instantly, A pop-up notification said her booking failed. She is still trying to get her $8,000 refund.

Jabri is not alone. The hasty launch of Motawif has left thousands of Muslims stranded, with technical glitches preventing many from booking trips. Some said they were scrambling to get their money back after the website charged them but didn’t book the trip. Others report that airports are now being kicked out of overbooked flights. Many pilgrims said the timing was especially damaging on the eve of the long-awaited trip.

“There is only one hajj in a lifetime,” said Jabri, 58, who teaches biology at Georgia State University. “They ruined everything.”

Saudi Arabia’s very different symbolic Hajj amid virus

Saudi Arabia’s Hajj Ministry on Wednesday Say It is trying to rectify the course by adding more flights from Western countries to Saudi Arabia and immediately issuing visas to those who travel. The Hajj ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Hajj is a central pillar of the Islamic faith. This is a five-day pilgrimage that every financially and physically able Muslim needs to travel to Mecca and nearby holy sites in Saudi Arabia. Non-Muslims are prohibited from traveling.

To prevent crowds of tourists, the logistics of the Hajj are strictly controlled and the number of people is limited. In 2019, the last pilgrimage before coronavirus protocols cut attendance, nearly 2.5 million people traveled. This year, attendance will be capped at 1 million and limited to those under the age of 65 who can prove they have tested negative for the coronavirus.

A trickle of pilgrims, millions of people used to worship here.

Experts say the Saudi royal family has gained legitimacy from its oversight of two of Islam’s holiest sites, making it crucial to ensure the annual pilgrimage goes smoothly.

Usually, travel agencies authorized by the Saudi government control the process, organize flights, Accommodation and visas for all-inclusive packages that can run tens of thousands of dollars.

But on June 6, Saudi officials announced that the process would be scrapped for people from places like the US, UK and EU. An online portal created by Dubai-based company Traveazy will handle bookings.

Saudi officials said the change was aimed at curbing Hajj fraud, where fake travel agencies sell fake travel packages and take money away.

University of Leeds professor and Hajj scholar Seán McLoughlin said the technology was also part of the country’s Vision 2030 initiative, part of a long-term plan to nearly double the number of pilgrims taking part in religious tours.

He added that an online booking method could provide a way for the government to expand its infrastructure to serve millions of passengers a year while maintaining profit margins.

“I guess this [portal] It felt like the next logical step,” he said. “But it was an epic failure, really. “

A representative for Traveazy did not respond to a request for comment.

The online portal is designed to be a one-stop shop: a document repository, a payment processor and a progress tracker for all Hajj-related travel details. Western pilgrims interested in making the trip were asked to upload their passports and coronavirus documents between June 10 and June 13.

They took part in a lottery between June 15 and 18 to decide who could buy the Hajj package, even if they had bought it from a travel agency months earlier. Winners can pay for their packages on the portal, generating a special e-Visa for the trip.

Amid global pandemic, technology infuses ancient Hajj ritual

Despite the centralized process, things were a mess, according to Muslims who tried to book.

Asif Siddiqui, who lives near Houston, is excited to finally be on the journey with his wife. They are in a financial position where they can manage the trip.

After the new process was announced, he quickly uploaded the documents and applied for a lottery. Siddiqui was selected and had 48 hours to choose a travel package with his wife. They chose a room that would allow them to own a hotel room. It cost nearly $30,000.

Over a four-day period, Siddiqui attempted 61 booking trips. They called customer service and got disconnected. On June 20, the payment finally went through, but a message informed them that the booking had failed.

With a week to go until the Hajj, they still have no firm travel plans — they have nearly $30,000 left on their credit cards.

“Emotionally, it can be both anxious and frustrating,” he said. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

As for Jabri, the experience kept her from booking Hajj trips through the portal. She said Saudi officials should conduct extensive testing to ensure that technical glitches do not prevent people from making such an extraordinary trip. Jabri prefers the personal touch of the travel agency.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” she said. “Technology can work, but test it on people. … Give it time.”

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